Friday, February 20, 2009

Shack Attack (by Jordan Pickering)

'Shack Attack' by Jordan Pickering

The Shack is part of a new postmodern Christianity, which is trying to shape our faith so that it fits more comfortably into postmodern society. In this project, it has jettisoned much of what is characteristic of Christianity, and reconstructed an image of God that has lost its Family resemblance.

The mistake that Christians will make about The Shack is to assume that because it is fiction, it is not theology. In our postmodern times, story is the favourite way of communicating. So we need to quickly wise up to the fact that Christian novels are works of theology. And they can either be teaching the true gospel or a false one.

The problem with fiction is that it is emotional rather than logical, and it’s message is woven into plot and dialogue and character development. This makes it very difficult to evaluate whether its message is good or bad. Stories don’t need to justify any of their points, or practice careful exegesis of key texts. If a story wants to make you believe something, it can create a loveable, trustworthy hero to advocate that point, and it can put the opposite view in the mouth of a revolting, unlovely scoundrel. The victory can be won, virtually subliminally, through emotion, not reason.

Stories are also difficult to assess because they tend to be ambiguous. The author is not bound to explain everything his characters say, and even if a character says something outrageous, we can’t know whether the author agrees with what his character has said. These problems are certainly true of The Shack.

So, fiction is a problematic medium for theology, and it will require careful thought and keen awareness from us as readers.

Positive things in the book

The Shack addresses two great problems in the Christian life: the problem of pain and grief, and the problem of empty religion.

In terms of his take on pain, the author does a lot of good work in affirming God’s goodness and God’s love in spite of our circumstances. So that’s reassuring. Unfortunately, he also goes too far. His God is not a judge and he’s never angry, and pain in the world is seemingly not God’s doing. It seems as though the author can only explain evil as being out of God’s control. So while there is much good on the subject of pain, it is hard to separate it out from a very faulty doctrine of God. I’d far rather that readers struggle their way through CS Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, than to read something easy and poisonous like The Shack.

Secondly, the author takes aim at the problem of empty religion. He asks a lot of the right questions about this subject, and he points out that relationship with God is at the heart of our faith, not structures and performance and rule keeping. Unfortunately, he once again goes too far. Instead of restoring our worship and church order and lifestyle to a context of relationship with God, he throws out church order and scripture and rule keeping altogether.

So, once again, the good that he does is undone by an overbalance. There are hundreds of books that might inspire readers to genuine relationship with God while opposing Pharisaism (as The Shack tries to do), without discarding the Evangelical faith (as The Shack does), so rather read those.

Concerns with the book

There are many concerns that ought to be addressed, especially problems with the doctrine of the Trinity and with attacks on church order. But let’s focus on two of the more serious issues.


The Shack is a postmodern book, and so the author doesn’t like the idea of truth and authority. That means that scripture cannot be God’s True Word and our final authority. In fact, he speaks of scripture as a book in which we’ve trapped God so that we can control him, and he’s even cynical towards the idea of there being a correct way of interpreting the Bible, because then the teachers can control it.

The Shack holds up direct, face-to-face communication with God as the Christian ideal. The trouble is, far from setting us free, this idea means that Christians will be listening to whatever wind blows through their minds, imagining that this or that thought is actually God’s voice, and then once you’ve got a good one, without scripture, by what standard will you test the spirits to see if they are from God, as John says?

Or, if there is no such thing as correct interpretation of scripture, the alternative is chaos, not freedom. One is able to invent any number of creative interpretations if one bends one’s mind to it. That’s where cults and false teaching come from, and every kind of spiritual captivity. But if we believe that there is in principle a correct interpretation, then it means that we believe in a standard of Truth, and even our leaders are subject to it. If we treat scripture properly, then we hear God speak, and He leads us by His Word. It is this that prevents us from being taken captive. We are not at the mercy of the creativity of our teachers. [The author might protest that, in his scheme, there is no need for teachers at all. I would have to ask in response what he thinks he is then, if not a teacher? People inevitably gravitate around leaders. True Scripture ensures that we and our leaders alike are governed by God, and not deception].


The biggest problem with the book is its doctrine of sin and salvation. It is extremely vague and ambiguous at every step here, and so it’s difficult to say precisely what the book is teaching. However it leans very strongly towards the belief that God does not judge or punish sin:

Papa: “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” (Pgs 118-120)

In discussion about hell, The Shack forces us to imagine sending one of our own children to hell forever. The lead character finds it impossible to imagine sending someone he loves to hell, and so the implication is that God, who loves infinitely more than we do, would not do so either. This relies on the assumption that God's attitude to sin is the same as ours. It's not. Even the supposed dichotomy between God’s love and God’s judgment is a false one, but, on that basis, The Shack seems to rule out the existence of hell and judgment.

The Shack also teaches that, regardless of whether or not we believe in Him, God has reconciled Himself fully to the world. It never says that the world is thus reconciled to God, but you can’t actually claim to be reconciled to someone if they still hate you. Reconciliation is all or nothing. So if you take the book seriously, it’s saying that everyone will be saved regardless of faith.

And finally, when it speaks about what God requires of us, the book’s answer is ‘nothing at all’. We have no law, no responsibility, and God expects nothing of us. The God character says at one point, “because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me” (pg 206).

So in summary, The Shack is a very dangerous book, because it is sweet and warm and easy to read, but it’s actually selling a religion that has no rule of faith, no community in which you need to serve, and no order or authority. It sells a God who isn’t offended by sin, who makes no demands, has no expectations and is never disappointed in anybody, and who will not judge or condemn. You’ll read the book and wish that you had these characters as your father and mother and best friend, but the portrait of God that the author has drawn is an idol of his own carving. This god might be as warm and loveable as Oprah, but it’s not the Christian God any longer.

For a longer review of 'The Shack' by the same author, Jordan Pickering go to:


Anonymous said...

"The Shack holds up direct, face-to-face communication with God as the Christian ideal. The trouble is... this idea means that Christians will be listening to whatever wind blows through their minds, imagining that this or that thought is actually God’s voice..."

It seems to me that this critique creates a false dichotomy between "hearing from Godde" and reading about Godde in "Scripture".

Surely as much (or if we take the history of church into account) pareidolia takes place through reading Scripture as through trying to hear Godde for oneself?

Do you really teach and hold to the view that Godde is silent? That Godde does not speak to His children? That She does not want them to recognise Her voice?

The picture I get, from reading Scripture, is that personal and direct experience of Godde should be a present-continuous part of our lives.

Samurai said...

God isn't a she. Who is Godde?

God does speak but He never contradicts His word, therefore any revelation from Him will confirm and never be at variance to His Word.